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Cornell University Library 
HV 37.F6 

Is social work a profession? 




3 1924 014 006 617 



IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION?* 

BY ABRAHAM FLEXNER 



Before beginning to consider whether social work is 
or is not a profession, I must confess a very genuine 
doubt as to my competency to undertake the discus- 
sion. My acquaintance with social work, with the 
literature of social work, and with social workers is 
distinctly limited, — ^far too much so. Hence if the 
conclusions that I have reached seem to you unsound 
or academic, I beg you to understand that I should not 
be disposed to press them. 

The word "profession" or "professional" may be 
loosely or strictly used. In its, broadest significance 
it ia^simply the opposite ^f the word "amateur." A 
person is in this sense a "professional" if. his entire 
time is devoted to an activity, as against one who is 
only transiently or provisionally so engaged. The pro- 
fessional nurse, baseball player, dancer, and cook thus 
earn a livelihood by concentrating their entire atten- 
tion on their respective vocations and expect to go on 
doing so; whereas the amateur nurse enlists only for 
the duration of the war, or the amateur baseball player, 
during early youth or college life. Social work is from this 
point of view a profession for those who make a full-time 
job of it; it is not a profession for those who incidentally 
contribute part of themselves to active philanthropy. 

However, I have not been asked to decide whether 
social work is a full-time or a part-time occupation, 

♦ An address before the National Conference of Charities and Correction 
Baltimore, May 17, 1915. ' 



IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 3 

whether, in a word, it is a professional or an amateur 
occupation. I assume that every difficult occupation 
requires the entire time of those who take it seriously, 
though of course work can also be found for volunteers 
with something less. than all their time or strength to 
offer. The question put to me is a more technical one. 
The term profession, strictly used, as opposed to busi- 
ness or handicraft, is a title of peculiar distinction, 
coveted by many activities. Thus far it has been 
pretty indiscriminately used. Almost any occupation 
not obviously a business is apt to classify itself as 
a profession. Doctors, lawyers, preachers, musicians, 
engineers, journalists, trained nurses, trapeze and danc- 
ing masters, equestrians, and chiropodists — all speak of 
their "profession". Their claims are supposed to be 
established beyond question if they are able to affix to 
their names one of those magical combinations of letters 
that either are or look like an academic degree. On 
this basis chiropody would be a profession because the 
New York School of Chiropody confers the degree of 
M. Cp., and social work might qualify at once with the 
degree S. W. Some years ago the president of a wes- 
tern university told me that he had compiled a list of 
all the degrees ever conferred by his institution. In 
the list appeared a very ominous combination of let- 
ters, — ^nothing less, in a word, than N. G. I was relieved 
to be informed that this was not an effort to characterize 
the entire academic output, but signified only "grad- 
uate nurse". If the academic degree decides, nursing 
is a profession for that reason, even were there no other. 
We need waste no time in endeavoring to formulate 
the concept of "professional", if the concept is to in- 
clude the indiscriminate activities. touched on above. 



4 IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 

If there is a dancing profession, a baseball profession, an 
acting profession, a nursing profession, an artistic profes- 
sion, a musical profession, a literary profession, a medical 
profession, and a legal profession — to mention no others 
— the term profession is too vague to be fought for. We 
may as well let down the bars and permit people to call 
themselves professional, for no better reason than that 
they choose in this way to appropriate whatever of social 
distinction may still cling to a term obviously abused. 

But to make a profession in the genuine sense, some- 
thing more than a mere claim or an academic degree is 
needed. There are certain objective standards that 
can be formulated. Social work is interested in being 
recognized as a profession only if the term is limited 
to activities possessing these criteria. The social 
worker wants, I assume, to be a professional, if at all, 
only in the sense in which the physician and the en- 
gineer are professional, and he wants to make common 
cause with them in defending the term against dete- 
rioration. In this narrower and eulogistic sense, what 
are the earmarks of a profession? 

One has, of course, no right to be arbitrary, notional, 
or unhistorical. The nature of a profession has under- 
gone a readily traceable development, and the number 
of professions has not remained stationary. Occupa- 
tions that were once non-professional have evolved into 
full professional status. These changes will continue 
to go on. The definition that we may formulate to-day 
will therefore need recasting from time to time, and 
internal modifications will occur in many of the activi- 
ties that we shall mention. My present concern, how- 
ever, is not to consider the evolutionary aspects of the 
problem, but rather to ask what are at this moment the 



IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? B 

criteria of a profession and to consider whether social 
work conforms to them. There are a few professions 
universally admitted to be such, — law, medicine, and 
preaching. From these one must by analysis extract the 
criteria with which, at least, one must begin the charac- 
terization of professions. As we proceed, we shall con- 
sider how far the conception has been widened or modified 
by the addition of new professions ; and finally, to what ex- 
tent social work measures up to the standard thus reached . 

Would it not be fair to mention as the first mark of a 
profession that the activities involved are essentially 
intellectual in character? Manual work is not neces- 
sarily excluded; the use of tools is not necessarily ex- 
cluded. The physician is not the less a member of the 
profession because his fingers feel a pulse and his hands 
sound a patient's chest; the engineer is not the less a 
member of a profession because he employs instruments 
and tools. But in neither of these instances does the 
activity derive its essential character from its instru- 
ments. The instrument is an incident or an accident; 
the real character of the activity is the thinking process. 
A free, resourceful, and unhampered intelligence applied 
to problems and seeking to understand and master them, 
— ^that is in the first instance characteristic of a profession. 

Wherever intelligence plays thus freely, the responsi- 
bility of the practitioner is at once large and personal. 
The problems to be dealt with are complicated; the 
facilities at hand, more or less abundant and various; 
the agent — physician, engineer, or preacher — exercises 
a very large discretion as to what he shall do. He 
is not under orders; though he be cooperating with 
others, the work is team work, rather than individual 
work, his responsibility is not less complete and not 



6 IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 

less personal. This quality of responsibility follows 
from the fact that professions are intellectual in char- 
acter; for in all intellectual operations, the thinker 
takes upon himself a risk. If then intellectuality with 
consequent personal responsibility be regarded as one 
criterion of a profession, no merely instrumental or 
mechanical activity can fairly lay claim to professional 
rank; for the human mind does not, in instrumental 
or mechanical activities, enjoy the requisite freedom 
of scope or carry the requisite burden of personal 
responsibility. The execution or application of a 
thought-out technique, — be it crude or exquisite, physi- 
cal or mental, — ^is after all routine. Some one back of 
the routineer has done the thinking and therefore bears 
the responsibility, and he alone deserves to be con- 
sidered professional. 

We are accustomed to speak of the learned profes- 
sions. What is the significance of the word learned in 
this connection? Does it imply that there are un- 
learned as well as learned professions? I suspect not, 
for the intellectual character of professional activity 
involves the working up of ideas into practice, involves 
the derivation of raw material from one realm or an- 
other of the learned world. Professions would fall 
short of attaining intellectuality if they employed 
mainly or even largely knowledge and experience that 
is generally accessible,— if they drew, that is, only on 
the usually available sources of information. They 
need to resort to the laboratory and the seminar for. a 
constantly fresh supply of facts; and it is the steady- 
stream of ideas, emanating from these sources, which 
keeps professions from degenerating into mere routine 
from losing their intellectual and responsible character! 



IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 7 

The second criterion of the profession is therefore its 
learned character, and this characteristic is so essential 
that the adjective learned really adds nothing to the 
noun profession. 

Professions are therefore intellectual and learned; 
they are in the next place definitely practical. No 
profession can be merely academic and theoretic; the 
professional man must have an absolutely definite and 
practical object. His processes are essentially in- 
tellectual; his raw material is derived from the world 
of learning; thereupon he must do with it a clean-cut, 
concrete task. All the activities about the professional 
quality of which we should at once agree are not only 
intellectual and learned, but definite in purpose. The 
professions of law, medicine, architecture, and engi- 
neering, for example, operate within definite fields and 
strive towards objects capable of clear, unambiguous, 
and concrete formulation. Physicians rely mainly 
on certain definite sciences, — anatomy, physiology, 
pharmacology, etc., — and apply these to the preserva- 
tion and restoration of health. Architecture relies on 
mathematics, physics, etc., and applies these to the 
designing and construction of buildings. Ends may of 
course be concrete and practical without being physical 
or tangible. University professors, engaged in teaching, 
in the training of teachers, in the increase of knowledge 
or the development of thought, stand the tests that 
we have thus far enumerated : — their work is intellectual, 
learned in quality, and definitely practical in object. 

Each of the unmistakable professions already men- 
tioned for the purpose of illustration possesses a tech- 
nique capable of communication through an orderly 
and highly specialized educational discipline. Despite 



8 IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 

differences of opinion about details, the members of a 
given profession are pretty well agreed as to the specific 
objects that the profession seeks to fulfill, and the 
specific kinds of skill that the practitioner of the pro- 
fession must master in order to attain the object in 
question. On this basis, men arrive at an understand- 
ing as to the amount and quality of training, general 
and special, which should precede admission into the 
professional school; as to the content and length of the 
professional course. These formulations are meant to 
exclude from professions those incapable of pursuing 
them in a large, free, and responsible way; and to make 
sure that those potentially capable are so instructed as to 
get the fullest possible benefit from the training provided. 
A profession is a brotherhood, — almost, if the word 
could be purified of its invidious implications, a caste. 
Professional activities are so definite, so absorbing in 
interest, so rich in duties and responsibilities, that they 
completely engage their votaries. The social and per- 
sonal lives of professional men and of their families 
thus tend to organize around a professional nucleus. 
A strong class consciousness soon develops. But 
though externally somewhat aristocratic in form, pro- 
fessions are, properly taken, highly democratic institu- 
tions. They do indeed tend to set up certain require- 
ments for matriculation, so to speak; but democracy, 
I take it, means not the annihilation of distinctions, but 
rather the abrogation of gratuitous and arbitrary dis- 
tinctions. If membership in a profession were condi- 
tioned on some qualification not essentially related to 
the activities involved — on birth or wealth or some other 
accident — professions could be fairly charged with 
being snobbish or aristocratic; but if qualifications are 



IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 9 

determined by the nature of the responsibility alone, 
and if membership depends solely on satisfying terms 
thus arrived at, then professions must be adjudged 
thoroughly democratic in essence. 

There is, of course, always danger that the interests 
of an organization may conflict with those of the body 
politic. Organizations of physicians, lawyers, and 
teachers may find the personal interests of the individ- 
uals of whom they are composed arrayed against those 
of society at large. On the whole, however, organized 
groups of this kind are, under democratic conditions, 
apt to be more responsive to public interest than are 
unorganized and isolated individuals. In any event, 
under the pressure of public opinion, professional 
groups have more and more tended to view themselves 
as organs contrived for the achievement of social ends 
rather than as bodies formed to stand together for the 
assertion of rights or the protection of interests and 
principles. I do not wish to be understood as saying 
that this development is as yet by any means complete. 
Such is far from being the case. Organizations of 
teachers, doctors, and lawyers are still apt to look out, 
first of all, for "number one". But as time goes on it 
may very well come to be a mark of professional char- 
acter that the professional organization is explicitly 
and admittedly meant for the advancement of the 
common social interest through the professional or- 
ganization. Devotion to well-doing is thus more and 
more likely to become an accepted mark of professional 
activity; and as this development proceeds, the pe- 
cuniary interest of the individual practitioner of a 
given profession is apt to yield gradually before an in- 
creasing realization of responsibility to a larger end. 



10 IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 

Let me now review briefly the six criteria which we 
have mentioned: professions involve essentially in- 
tellectual operations with large individual responsibil- 
ity; they derive their raw material from science and 
learning; this material they work up to a practical 
and definite end; they possess an educationally com- 
municable technique; they tend to self-organization; 
they are becoming increasingly altruistic in motivation. 
It will be interesting to submit various forms of activity to 
the test in order to determine whether these criteria work. 

We begin with a crude and obvious example, — ^plumb- 
ing. Plumbing possesses certain professional charac- 
teristics: it is definite in purpose, possesses a technique 
communicable through education, and has developed 
a very definite organization. Nevertheless plumbing 
is not a profession. The plumber is a mechanical 
performer, acting on the instrumental rather than the 
intellectual level; the data which he uses are the prop- 
erty of common experience, not immediately or re- 
cently derived from the realms of science and learning; 
finally, there is as yet no convincing evidence that the 
spirit of plumbing is becoming socialized. Plumbing is 
still prosecuted too largely for the plumber's profit. 
It is therefore a handicraft, not a profession. 

Bdnking is an activity with certain professional 
characteristics. Its purpose is definite; it gives a good 
deal of scope to intelligence; it develops a distinct class 
consciousness. But the disqualifications are plain: 
banking is as yet far from being to a sufficient extent 
the application of economic science; it is largely a 
matter of what is vaguely called "business sense" or 
"business experience", "common sense" or "rule of 
thumb". The scientific possibilities unquestionably 



IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 11 

exist, and recent legislation marks a distinct advance 
in the direction of scientific or professional banking in 
the stricter use of those terms. For the present, how- 
ever, banking practices are still too largely empirical to 
square with the modern conception of professionalism. 
There are, of course, other defects. A prominent 
banker recently described himself as "a dealer in 
credits". The motive of financial profit is thus too 
strongly stressed. It is true that in times of crisis the 
banking interests of the country have mobilized for the 
protection of the general public. But in these instances, 
trade interest and general interest so largely coincide 
that it is a question whether the motive can be regarded 
as an example of professional altruism; in any case, it 
is exceptional, due to common danger from the outside 
rather than to spiritual striving from within. For the 
present, therefore, banking is to be regarded as a trade 
with certain professional leanings. 

Is pharmacy a profession? Is trained nursing a pro- 
fession? The pharmacist compounds the physician's 
prescriptions, for which task he requires a considerable 
degree of expertness, a knowledge of certain sciences — 
especially chemistry — and a high degree of caution, 
since either the slightest error on his part, or inability to 
detect an error on the part of the physician, whether 
due to ignorance or to carelessness, may have very 
serious consequences. Recurring to our criteria, I 
should say that pharmacy has definiteness of purpose, 
possesses a communicable technique, and derives at 
least part of its essential material from science. On the 
other hand, the activity is not predominantly intellec- 
tual in character and the responsibility is not original 
or primary. The physician thinks, decides, and orders; 



12 IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 

the pharmacist obeys — obeys, of course, with discre- 
tion, intelligence, and skill — ^yet in the end obeys and 
does not originate. Pharmacy therefore is an arm 
added to the medical profession, a special and dis- 
tinctly higher form of handicraft, not a profession. 
Nor is this distinction merely a verbal quibble, for it 
has an important bearing on the solution of all educa- 
tional questions pertaining to pharmacy. 

I am conscious of endeavoring to pick up a live wire 
when I undertake to determine the status of the 
trained nurse. But if consideration of various activi- 
ties serially arranged will throw any light upon the 
problem as related to the social worker, there are ob- 
vious advantages in discussing the twilight cases. The 
trained nurse is making a praiseworthy and important 
effort to improve the status of her vocation. She 
urges, and with justice, that her position is one of great 
responsibility; that she must possess knowledge, skill, 
and power of judgment; that the chances of securing 
these qualifications, all of them essentially intellectual, 
improve, as the occupation increases in dignity. It is 
to be observed, however, that the responsibility of the 
trained nurse is neither original nor final. She, too, 
may be described as another arm to the physician or 
surgeon. Her function is instrumental, though not, 
indeed, just mechanically instrumental. In certain 
relations she is perhaps almost a collaborator. Yet, 
when all is said, it is the physician who observes, re- 
flects, and decides. The trained nurse plays into his 
hands; carries out his orders; summons him like a 
sentinel in fresh emergencies; subordinates loyally her 
intelligence to his theory, to his poUcy, and is effective 
in precise proportion to her ability thus to second his 



IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 13 

efforts. Can an activity of this secondary nature be 
deemed a profession? On the answer, an entire educa- 
tional policy depends. 

I have spoken of the trained nurse, the sick-room 
attendant, and I have raised, without endeavoring 
finally to dispose of, certain questions suggested by her 
relationship to the physician. Meanwhile, it is only 
fair to add, we are developing nursing along other 
lines. The public health nurse is a sanitary official, 
busy in the field largely on her own responsibility rather 
than in the sick room under orders. Whether the term 
nurse is properly appUcable to her, whether a differen- 
tiation in training and terminology is not likely to occur 
as pubUc health work comes into its own, I need not 
undertake to decide. 

With medicine, law, engineering, literature, painting, 
music, we emerge from all clouds of doubt into the un- 
mistakable professions. Without exception, these call- 
ings involve personally responsible intellectual activity; 
they derive their material immediately from learning 
and science; they possess an organized and education- 
ally communicable technique; they have evolved into 
definite status, social and professional, and they tend 
to become, more and more clearly, organs for the 
achievement of large social ends. I need not estabhsh 
this position separately in reference to each of them. 
Let the case of medicine sufiice. The physician's 
function is overwhelmingly intellectual in quaUty and 
his responsibility absolutely personal. He utihzes vari- 
ous instruments, physical and human: microscope, 
stethoscope, sphygmograph, orderly, pharmacist, diet- 
ician, nurse. But his is the commanding intelligence 
that brings these resources to bear; his the responsi- 



14 IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 

bility of decision as to the problem and how it is to be 
solved. There are of course, physicians in abundance 
to whose processes the word "intellectual" cannot be 
properly applied — routineers, to whom a few obvious 
signs indicate this or that procedure, by a law of me- 
chanical association; but these poorly trained and ill- 
equipped medical men have no place in modern medi- 
cine. They are already obsolete, mere survivals des- 
tined soon to pass away. 

In the next place, medicine derives its material 
immediately from science. Indeed, an imposing array 
of sciences has been developed, very largely out of 
problems encountered and needs felt in medical prac- 
tice: anatomy, physiology, pathology, bacteriology and 
pharmacology. These sciences have now achieved 
independence in the sense that, hke chemistry and 
physics, they possess inherent interest and are capable 
of development without immediate reference to disease. 
They nevertheless furnish the data with which the 
physician very largely operates, and his professional 
development may be determined by the degree to 
which he substitutes in his observation and thinking 
data thus derived for data empirical in character. 

Medicine quahfies on other points equally well: it 
has the definite, practical end already noted, viz. the 
preservation and restoration of health; it lends itself 
admirably to an effective and orderly educational dis- 
ciphne, calculated to attain the definite object just 
stated; it has achieved a very definite status; finally, 
though neither the organization as a whole nor the 
members as individuals can claim to be exempt from 
selfish and mercenary motives, it must in fairness be said 
that the medical profession has shown a genuine regard 



IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 15 

for the public interest as against its own, that it is increas- 
ingly responsive to large social needs, and that there are 
not wanting signs of a development that will minimize 
personal profit somewhat as it is minimized in teaching. 
I hope that these examples have made our criteria so 
clear that they can now be applied to social work. Is 
social work a profession in the technical and strict sense 
of the term? The Bulletin of the New York School of 
Philanthropy under the title "The Profession of Social 
Work" makes the following explanation: 

The School of Philanthropy is primarily a professional train- 
ing school, of graduate ranlc, for civic and social work. The 
word philanthropy is to be understood in the broadest and deep- 
est sense as including every kind of social work, whether under 
public or private auspices. By social work is meant any form 
of persistent and deliberate effort to improve Uving or working 
conditions in the community, or to relieve, diminish, or prevent 
distress, whether due to weakness of character or to pressure of 
external circumstances. All such efforts may be conceived as 
falling under the heads of charity, education, or justice, and the 
same action may sometimes appear as one or another according 
to the point of view. 

The activities described in these words are obviously 
intellectual, not mechanical, not routine in character. 
The worker must possess fine powers of analysis and 
discrimination, breadth and flexibifity of S3Tnpathy, 
sound judgment, skill in utilizing whatever resources are 
available, faciUty in devising new combinations. These 
operations are assuredly of intellectual quafity. 

I confess I am not clear, however, as to whether this 
responsibility is not rather that of a mediating than an 
original agency. Let me explain as concretely as I can. 
The engineer works out his problem and puts through 
its solution; so does the physician, the preacher, the 
teacher. The social worker takes hold of a case, that 
of a disintegrating family, a wrecked individual, or an 



16 IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 

unsocialized industry. Having localized his problem, 
having decided on its particular nature, is he not usually 
driven to invoke the specialized agency, professional 
or other, best equipped to handle it? There is illness 
to be dealt with, — the doctor is needed; ignorance re- 
quires the school; poverty calls for the legislator, or- 
ganized charity, and so on. To the extent that the 
social worker mediates the intervention of the particu- 
lar agent or agency best fitted to deal with the specific 
emergency which he has encountered, is the social 
worker himself a professional or is he the intelUgence 
that brings this or that profession or other activity into 
action? The responsibility for specific action thus 
rests upon the power he has invoked. The very variety 
of the situations he encounters compels him to be not a 
professional agent so much as the mediator invoking 
this or that professional agency. 

In speaking of social work as mediating, I do not 
intend to say that other professions are mutually inde- 
pendent and act independently. Indeed, the collabora- 
tion of different professions in the doing of specific 
tasks is a characteristic feature of latter-day organiza- 
tion. Architects, engineers, sanitarians, lawyers, and 
educators cooperate in the building of a school or a 
tenement. But it is to be noted that this is a division 
of labor among equals, each party bearing, subject to 
general consent, primary responsibility for his particu- 
lar function, the definiteness of that function and the 
completeness of the responsibility differing, I take it, 
from the function and responsibility of the social worker 
under similar conditions. 

Consideration of the objects of social work leads to 
the same conclusion. I have made the point that all 



IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 17 

the established and recognized professions have definite 
and specific ends : medicine, law, architecture, engineer- 
ing, — one can draw a clear line of demarcation about 
their respective fields. This is not true of social work. 
It appears not so much a definite field as an aspect of 
work in many fields. An aspect of medicine belongs 
to social work, as do certain aspects of law, education, 
architecture, etc. Recur for a moment to the scope of 
interest indicated in the extract above quoted from the 
prospectus of the New York School: the improvement 
of living and working conditions in the community, the 
relief or prevention of distress whether individual or 
social in origin. The prospectus of the Boston School 
for Social Workers enumerates the various kinds of 
positions occupied by its graduates as follows: care of 
children, church and religious work, civic agencies, 
industrial betterment, institutional and medical social 
service, neighborhood work and recreation, organizing 
charity, probation and parole. The field of employ- 
ment is indeed so vast that delimitation is impossible. 
We observed that professions need to be hmited and 
definite in scope, in order that practitioners may them- 
selves act; but the high degree of specialized com- 
petency required for action and conditioned on limita- 
tion of area cannot possibly go with the width of scope 
characteristic of social work. A certain superficiality 
of attainment, a certain lack of practical ability, neces- 
sarily characterize such breadth of endeavor. If, 
however, we conceive the social worker, not so much as 
the agent grappUng with this or that situation, but 
rather as controlling the key board that summons, 
cooperates with and coordinates various professional 
specialists, this breadth of attainment is very far from 



18 IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 

being a matter for reproach. It imposes upon the 
social worker the necessity of extreme caution, of con- 
siderable modesty, because in these days a considerable 
measure of certainty is possible to any one person only 
within a restricted field. Would it not be at least sug- 
gestive therefore to view social work as in touch with 
many professions rather than as a profession in and by 
itself? 

Perhaps the same idea can be brought out in 
other ways. A good deal of what is called social work 
might perhaps be accounted for on the ground that the 
recognized professions have developed too slowly on 
the social side. Suppose medicine were fully socialized; 
would not medical men, medical institutions, and medi- 
cal organizations look after certain interests that the 
social worker must care for just because medical prac- 
tice now falls short? The shortcomings of law create a 
similar need in another direction. Thus viewed, social 
work is, in part at least, not so much a separate pro- 
fession, as an endeavor to supplement certain existing 
professions pending their completed development. It 
pieces out existing professions; breathes a new spirit 
into them; and binds them together in the endeavor to 
deal with a given situation from a new point of view. 

Lack of specificity in aim affects seriously the prob- 
lem of training social workers. Professions that are 
able to define their objects precisely can work out educa- 
tional procedures capable of accomplishing a desired 
result. But the occupations of social workers are so 
numerous and diverse that no compact, purposefully 
organized educational discipline is feasible. Well- 
informed, well-balanced, tactful, judicious, sympathetic, 
resourceful people are needed, rather than any definite 



IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 19 

kind or kinds of technical skill. In so far as education 
can produce this type, the education is not technically 
professional so much as broadly cultural in a variety 
of realms of civic and social interest. The vagueness 
of the enterprise in which they are engaged must have 
troubled the instructors themselves, if I may judge from 
a remark once made to me by one of them: "We 
don't know just what to teach them". In this con- 
nection it is worth noting that the heads of schools for 
social workers are trained men with subsequent ex- 
perience, but not trained social workers. Dr. Graham 
Taylor is a theologian by training, Dr. Brackett and 
Dr. Devine are economists. In addition to knowing a 
specialty well, they are all well-informed in many other 
directions. This breadth of interest and attainment 
reinforced by practical experience makes them compe- 
tent heads of schools for social workers, — ^this, rather 
than any particular training aimed at the particular job. 

Let me add, however, that what I have just said 
does not imply that schools of philanthropy are super- 
fluous. Looking at them as educational ventures, I 
suspect that they are as yet feeUng about for their 
proper place and function. There is an obvious con- 
venience, however, in having an institution which 
focuses as far as possible the main lines of social activ- 
ity; an obvious advantage in having an institution 
that emphasizes the practical side of what might other- 
wise be more or less academic instruction in many 
branches. But instruction of this kind is not exactly 
professional in character; it supplements and brings 
to bear what good students might well acquire in the 
course of their previous higher education. 

If social work fails to conform to some professional 



20 IS SOCIAL W6k£ A PROFESSION? 

criteria, it very readily satisfies others. No question 
can be raised as to the source from which the social 
worker derives his material — ^it comes obviously from 
science and learning, from economics, ethics, religion 
and medicine; nor is there any doubt on the score of 
the rapid evolution of a professional self-consciousness, 
as these annual conferences abundantly testify. Fi- 
nally, in the one respect in which most professions still 
fall short, social work is fairly on the siame level as 
education, for the rewards of the social worker are in 
his own conscience and in heaven. His life is marked 
by devotion to impersonal ends and his own satis- 
faction is largely through the satisfactions procured by 
his efforts for others. 

There is, however, another side even to this aspect 
of professional activity. Professions may not be culti- 
vated for mere profit. Neither, let me add, can they 
develop on the basis of volunteer or underpaid service. 
Most men and women are fortunately so placed that 
the career they adopt must afford them the income 
necessary to their existence and development. Well- 
trained men and women cannot, as a rule, be attracted 
to a vocation that does not promise a living wage in 
return for competent service. Am I mistaken in think- 
ing that not infrequently the inner joy attached to 
philanthropic endeavor has seemed to those in control 
a more complete satisfaction of the worker's legitimate 
desires than it has seemed, for example, to the worker 
herself? Here again I am raising a question, not 
making a criticism. 

Now that we have run through the marks of the pro- 
fessions and have found that on the whole at this stage 
social work is hardly eligible, it is fair to ask whether 



IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 21 

we have not been simply engaged in verbal quibbling. 
Has an analysis of this kind any practical significance? 

It seems to me that it has. For example: the social 
worker is at times perhaps somewhat too self-confident; 
social work has suffered to some extent from one of the 
vices associated with journalism, excessive facility in 
speech and in action. Let us suppose for a moment 
that our reflection on the differences between the ac- 
cepted professions and social work reminds the social 
worker at crucial moments that he is, as social worker, 
not so much an expert himself as the mediator whose 
concern it is to summon the expert: will not his ob- 
servation be calmer, his utterance more restrained, be 
the difficulty he encounters economic, educational, or 
sanitary? He will, I mean, be conscious of his depend- 
ence, and this consciousness will tend to induce caution, 
thoroughness, and moderation. For if social work is 
not definite enough to be called a profession, the social 
worker will at least be less cock-sure than the profes- 
sional man whom he calls in. Is it not possible that 
part of the vast army of reaction is made up of those 
needlessly terrified by the occasionally reckless — ^and 
perhaps somewhat baseless — confidence of the reformer? 
If so, failure to realize the limitations of social work 
from the professional point of view is not without prac- 
tical consequences. 

Matthew Arnold somewhere quotes Goethe as say- 
ing: "To do is easy; to think is hard". There is a 
sense in which the remark is true. If we mean routine 
doing and fundamental thinking, then truly to do is 
easy, to think is hard. But there is a sense in which 
the remark is false. For if we mean by doing, effective 
doing, and by thinking the facile movement of sugges- 



22 IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 

tion, then to think is easy, to do is hard. The easy 
impatient sweep of progressive recommendation, char- 
acteristic of even the best progressive journalism, is 
one thing; the working out of a practical problem is 
quite another. I know of nothing more difficult than 
to take hold of a definite situation in sanitation or 
education and to make it better. Nor is it only or in 
some cases mainly the iniquity and perversity of men 
that are at fault; our impatience may occasionally be 
unjust, if it is due to any such view. The problems are 
in themselves intricate; our resources are inadequate; 
our powers, especially in dealing with others, are rela- 
tively slight and work slowly. In the sense in which 
we are now speaking, Goethe's saying may be reversed: 
to think is easy, to do is hard. 

I have no desire to discourage social workers; still 
less do I want to bring aid or comfort to the enemy. 
I do not want to diminish the vigor of any attack that 
can be made upon poverty, ignorance, disease, selfish- 
ness; but for the moment I am, ignoring all else, looking 
at the method of the social worker from the merely 
professional standpoint. Now when social work be- 
comes thoroughly professional in character and scien- 
tific in method, it will be perceived that vigor is not 
synonymous with intelligence. Moreover, vigor cannot 
succeed without intelligence. The battles that social 
work wages will not be won by phrases which too often 
serve as a substitute for experience and knowledge, 
but by trench, warfare carried on by men and women 
who have learned every inch of the ground over which 
they must fight. 

I spoke a moment ago of journalism. I would not 
be understood as discrediting effective and able journal- 



IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 23 

istic work. Its limitations however are obvious, and 
by none are they more acutely felt than by some of 
those who are compelled by the necessities of the case 
to labor within them. What I mean to point out here 
is this: that a profession needs in these days a form 
of expression and record that is scientific rather than 
journalistic in character. The newspapers, the weekly 
and monthly periodicals, more or less serve social work 
as far as journalistic publicity is concerned. Now 
while it is doubtless still advisable to concentrate this 
material in journals expressly devoted to social work 
for news-propaganda and agitation, it is important to 
remember that we do not thus rise above the journalistic 
to the scientific or professional level. A profession 
must find a dignified and critical means of expressing 
itself in the form of a periodical which shall describe 
in careful terms whatever work is in progress; and it 
must from time to time register its more impressive 
performances in a literature of growing solidity and 
variety. To some extent the evolution of social work 
towards the professional status can be measured by the 
quality of publication put forth in its name. I cannot 
pretend to such familiarity with the Hterature of social 
work as to warrant me in passing an opinion as to how 
far its periodical or its book literature is impressive, 
scientific, or professional in quality; but I believe the 
point is one which might be profitably considered by 
those who wish social work to be taken as seriously as 
medicine or engineering. 

At the moment, therefore, it may be — observe that 
I am not endeavoring to be very positive — it may be 
that social work will gain if for the time being it be- 
comes uncomfortably conscious that it is not a profes- 



24 IS SOCIAL WORK A PROFESSION? 

sion in the sense in which medicine and en^neering 
are professions; that if medicine and engineering have 
cause to proceed with critical care, social work has even 
more. The father of the late President Oilman was 
once asked whether his son Daniel had "chosen his 
profession". "I don't know," he replied, "Daniel is 
always working rather than professing." 

But after all, what matters most is professional 
spirit. All activities may be prosecuted in the genuine 
professional spirit. In so far as accepted professions 
are prosecuted at a mercenary or selfish level, law and 
medicine are ethically no better than trades. In so far 
as trades are honestly carried on, they tend to rise 
towards the professional level. Social work appeals 
strongly to the humanitarian and spiritual element. 
It holds out no inducement to the worldly, — ^neither 
comfort, glory, nor money. The unselfish devotion of 
those who have chosen to give themselves to making 
the world a fitter place to live in can fill social work 
with the professional spirit and thus to some extent 
lift it above all the distinctions which I have been at 
such pains to make. In the long run, the first, main 
and indispensable criterion of a profession will be the 
possession of professional spirit, and that test social 
work may, if it will, fully satisfy.